Political pressure puts press freedom to test

Diet debate to give state more control alone may turn media inward

by Jun Hongo

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News photo
Hideo Shimizu – , director of the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization, announces during a news conference on March 7 the formation of a new subcommittee to prevent fabricated information from being broadcast by TV stations.
KYODO PHOTO

The major had taken over NHK’s radio in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, pressuring Yanagisawa, then the coordinator of the broadcaster’s radio programs, to suppress the Emperor’s declaration of defeat.

But Yanagisawa firmly stuck to the plan to air the declaration, and the mutineer eventually left, conceding that his attempt to hamper the media had failed.

Now 98 years old, Yanagisawa fears the current government’s fervor to revise the Broadcast Law and increase its power over the media could lead to intimidation not unlike what he faced 62 years ago.

“History has shown that even the smallest regulation can be interpreted broadly and eventually censor the media,” the retired journalist told The Japan Times during a recent interview by e-mail. “I feel that the freedom of the press is facing a crisis now.”

The bill to revise the Broadcast Law, which the Diet took up for discussion last week after it was approved by the Cabinet in April, would give the internal affairs and communications minister the authority to demand reports and prevention plans from a broadcaster if it has aired programs based on fabricated information.

The new clause was proposed after the Januaray scandal at Kansai Telecasting Corp., when it was revealed that the TV network had promoted dieting techniques on the show “Hakkutsu! Aru Aru Daijiten” based on faked data. One of the sham episodes about the weight-loss properties of “natto” even caused a shortage of the fermented soybean products in supermarkets nationwide.

Such a legal provision, however, would make Japan a rarity among industrialized countries for granting the government direct authority to punish media organizations.

Similar powers are given to third-party organizations in other major democracies, such as the U.S. Federal Communications Committee, an independent government agency, and Britain’s Office of Communications, which is led by a board of journalists and media-related professionals.

The outcry against the revision of the law by media experts will likely make it difficult for the bill to be passed during the current Diet session, which ends June 23. But it is likely to be carried over to the next extraordinary session.

During a news conference in April, communications minister Yoshihide Suga claimed the purpose of the new clause was to avoid fabricated broadcasts. He added that the ministry had “jurisdiction to supervise the accuracy” of the programs aired to the public.

Suga caused controversy last November by issuing an unprecedented order to NHK to increase its coverage of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the broadcaster’s overseas shortwave radio programs.

Yanagisawa, who faced down army intimidation and proceeded with the historic broadcast in 1945, disapproved of the minister’s actions, calling the government’s position on controlling the media treacherous.

“I knew Japan would lose the war from the beginning but I had to keep that to myself and continue broadcasting fake announcements written by the government,” Yanagisawa recalled of his experience working for NHK during the war.

He confronted army rebels at his studio with a “sense of mission” to air Emperor Hirohito’s statement. But during the war, he had to follow government orders and conceal the deteriorating war situation from the public, he said.

“While the young suicide squads were preparing for attack, I was well aware that Japan could not defeat the Allied forces. But I couldn’t broadcast that,” he said. “People must understand that losing the freedom of the press is the same as losing their lives.”

Although Suga has explained that reprimands would only be invoked when a broadcaster admits to airing a fabricated program, media experts such as Hidemi Suzuki are quick to point out that the revised law, if enacted, may violate the freedom of the press under the Constitution.

Suzuki, a professor at the graduate school of law at Osaka University, criticized the new clause for possibly violating the censorship-banning Article 21, while adding there was no practical reason for the state to exercise greater control over the media.

“If a fabricated broadcast causes damage to the public, there are many ways to (stifle) the source, such as suing for libel. I see no grounds to impose a new clause,” Suzuki said.

The media law specialist, scheduled to become an outside board member of Kansai TV in June, claimed the troubled network’s key to regaining public trust is to revise its management structure and open channels of communication between the producers and creators of the programs.

“Such reforms depend on the responsibility of those involved. Imposing a (suppressive) clause would have no effect,” she said. “The clause only intimidates the media.”

Although the revision being deliberated may seem minor and fair on the surface, Suzuki said even the smallest pressure on media outlets often has critical consequences.

Satoshi Daigo, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school of economics, agreed.

Citing a January Tokyo High Court ruling that NHK had altered a wartime sex slavery documentary after taking into account pressure from lawmakers, including then Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Daigo said TV stations would be vulnerable to state manipulation once the revision is put into force.

“NHK was influenced by the lawmakers because it needs its budget to be approved by the Diet. The revision being deliberated would position the government on top of the broadcasters, which will impose a similar effect,” he said.

Instead of revising the law, Daigo suggested that a third party, such as the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization, which just installed 10 media experts to clamp down on inappropriate programs, should be entitled to control the content of media broadcasts.

Suga has responded positively to the BPO’s role in managing broadcast content, saying the controversial clause would not be invoked as long as the BPO’s supervision remains effective.

But it remains uncertain if the government’s supervisory power over the media by itself would threaten freedom of the press.

“I fear that the media will be daunted by the clause instead of it having a deterrent effect. Broadcasters will shy away from being aggressive and focus on being unobjectionable,” Daigo said.

“That is a much bigger problem than just affecting the sales of natto.”